Dec 7, 2015
Adapting Aristophanes' classic comedy Lysistrata to current day Chicago gang warfare is a great idea. The story of how the women of Sparta decided to withhold sex from their men in order to stop war resonates across centuries, particularly now that the United States is gripped by homegrown gun violence. Spike Lee starts his movie with a graphic presentation of statistics since apparently nothing else helps: there are roughly the same amount of deaths due to gun violence in this country than all the American casualties of our latest Middle Eastern wars.
This film is truly timely. It seems as if it was printed just yesterday. It mentions a disheartening parade of Black people who have recently been in the news as victims of police brutality, from Eric Garner to Sandra Bland and others. It is an urgent call for sanity by a director who has plenty reason to be outraged.
Sometimes outrage inspires Lee's best work, as in the two sober and moving documentaries he made for HBO, 4 Little Girls and When The Levees Broke. But often it does not serve him well.
Here, the execution is bogged down by Lee's penchant for blunt lecturing and his resolute lack of finesse. Having the dialog rhyme is a good idea, as it reflects a powerful aspect of Black culture. It works if you can write witty and musical rhymes and you have actors who can deliver them with naturality. This is not the case. The rhymes are lame. Except for Samuel Jackson, who could and should read every phone book in existence, and in one killer cameo, the great Dave Chappelle, most of the actors struggle to act convincingly. Jennifer Hudson and Steve Harris acquit themselves well, even though the actors are directed to ham it up. As Lysistrata, Teyonah Parris is beautiful and charismatic but brings nothing but triteness to the role. Same with Nick Cannon. What is the point of bringing back the sorely missed and usually charming Wesley Snipes, as Cyclops the gang leader, if he is going to be mugging and unfunny? None of the characters rise above stereotype.
Chi-raq's power is in its raw outrage, which is condensed into one long actual sermon delivered by a priest (John Cusack, on fire) about the profitable business of keeping young black males armed with weapons instead of choices. It is the best and central scene in the film, but it is preceded by a tepid gospel routine, with a dreadful song (why, with all the amazing gospel songs that exist?). One wonders why the priest, who is such an important part of the Black community, is white. There is an explanation for it in the film, but I wonder if Cusack was cast to attract a wider audience. Or maybe Lee thinks that if he puts these awful truths on the lips of a Black actor, white people are going to dismiss them as whining, which they most certainly are not. It is a baffling choice.
Chi-raq is an ambitious film which unabashedly celebrates Black culture while it aims to rouse people into pondering the virulent injustice and attendant self-destruction with which Blacks live every day. Yet even though Aristophanes provides a solid plot, the narrative thread of the movie is weakened by lackluster musical numbers and unnecessary story tangents.
Matthew Libatique's cinematography is strong, but the trademark Spike Lee camera moves are feeling their age. Terence Blanchard, who has done well scoring other Lee films, provides a mostly sappy score that clashes with the strong people portrayed. Only the winning costume design by Ruth Carter wittily synthesizes echoes of ancient Greece with current street fashions.
Spike Lee burst into American film thirty years ago with movies like Do The Right Thing that were fresh, funny and provocative. With success, his movies got bigger and a didactic streak seeped in. Just like Steven Spielberg can't help laying on the schmaltz, Lee can't help lecturing. It is one constant in his films that deflates them for me.
Still, Spike Lee has left his mark in American movies like no other director of color. He's had an epic, if uneven, run. Chi-raq is not his greatest, but it has a couple of moments of raw power. Lee shows people at a rally holding pictures of the real victims of gun and gang violence, many of them children. They are more eloquent and devastating than any speeches.
Here is my personal list of the best Spike Lee films:
Do The Right Thing
When The Levees Broke
Four Little Girls
Summer of Sam